MENA and the Uighurs: An Analysis


China’s relationships with Western powers are in a state of crisis. This is partly a result of – and is shown by – issues such as Hong Kong’s new security law, possible government involvement in Huawei’s business, and perceived failings in the response to COVID-19. The recent establishment by senior Conservative figures of a ‘China Research Group’ led by Tom Tugendhat, current chair of the House of Commons foreign affairs select committee, shows that some politicians in the West are actively pursuing a reorientation of relations with China.[1] The same can be seen in the US, where Christopher Wray, the current FBI director, has spoken out against China’s ‘Operation Fox Hunt’ as well as apparent intellectual property theft and political interference.[2] That China recognises such sentiments and is concerned by them was shown more recently when the Foreign Minister, Wang Yi, said that US-China ties were at their lowest point since 1979.[3] But it is not just the West which is facing challenges in its relations with China. For Muslim-majority countries of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), perhaps the greatest potential difficulty is how to respond to the appalling Chinese treatment of the Uighur ethnic minority, a predominantly Sunni Muslim group. How are theocracies such as Iran and Saudi Arabia, where Islam is a central component of both culture and of governmental power, balancing religion and diplomacy in responding to what some have called an ongoing ‘cultural genocide’ of Uighurs?[4] In a way, there is a simple answer: it is diplomacy over religion – countries of the MENA region have generally ignored any sense of pan-Islamic solidarity on the issue. However, their reasons for doing so are manifold. To explore them, it is useful to first understand the situation of Uighurs in China.

Uighurs in China

One of the fifty-five ethnic minorities (alongside the Han majority) officially recognised by the Chinese government, the Uighurs are concentrated in northwest China in the Xinjiang Autonomous Region. Although they are not the only predominantly Muslim ethnic group in the country – the Hui are another large group – they have been specifically targeted on a massive scale by Xi Jinping’s Beijing. One motivation for this campaign of ‘sinicisation’ or ‘cultural genocide’ is fear of violence, especially outside Xinjiang. In 2013, a car attack in Tiananmen Square killed two people and in 2014, thirty-one people were stabbed to death by a group of Uighurs in Kunming.[5] But importantly, the Uighurs are recognisably distinct from the Han majority in China, being Muslim, speaking a Turkic language and having a history of relative independence from Beijing; their difference poses a threat to China’s authoritarian brand of socialism.[6] Since 2014, the Chinese government has pursued an aggressive campaign of repression and re-education, using surveillance technology, compulsory guarded ‘schools’, and bans on elements of Uighur Muslim culture such as long beards and veils.[7] There has also been widespread demolition of places of worship, such as the historic Kargilik mosque in southern Xinjiang.[8] On this account, governments of majority-Muslim countries where Islam is the official religion, such as Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Iran, would be expected to be strongly critical of this Chinese repression. Instead, the treatment of Uighurs has been met with relative silence by such powers.

In July 2019, thirty-seven countries signed a letter to the UN’s Human Rights Council celebrating China’s record on human rights and their ‘counter-terrorism and deradicalization measures in Xinjiang’. It used similar language to Chinese government statements and was a riposte to an earlier letter condemning China’s actions in Xinjiang signed by twenty-two ‘mainly European’ countries (the US quit the Council in 2018 and only signed a later, similar statement in October).[9] Those thirty-seven signatories included Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Bahrain. Although Qatar later withdrew its signature in favour of a ‘neutral stance’, this was no departure from the general tendency of MENA governments towards support or silence with regard to China’s treatment of the Uighurs. Turkey is the only country in the region to have offered much resistance to the repression. In February 2019, Turkey’s Foreign Ministry condemned China’s actions, calling them a ‘great shame for humanity’.[10] However, since then Turkey has tacked closer to the MENA mode, with President Erdogan criticised by activists for failing to publicly raise the issue on a trip to China last year.[11] In February this year, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu asserted the historic links between Turks and Uighurs, countering Chinese claims to the contrary, and called for ‘Uighur Turks’ to be treated as ‘first class citizens’. However, this veiled criticism was tempered by the claim that Turkey, unlike other – unnamed – countries, did not wish to treat the issue as a ‘political tool’ against China.[12]

Uighurs in the MENA

Nor have the Uighur diaspora found sanctuary in the MENA region. In several countries, including Turkey, the US, Egypt, and the Netherlands, they have been harassed from afar by the domestic Chinese authorities.[13] And significantly, in some MENA countries such as Turkey and Egypt it appears the local authorities have aided this campaign of intimidation.[14] For example, in July 2017 the Egyptian authorities arrested several dozen Uighurs, mostly male students.[15] Thus, not only have the region’s governments either expressed support for – or chosen to largely ignore – China’s campaign against the Uighurs, some seem to have actively contributed to this repression.

This is not to say that governments of Western and non-MENA Muslim-majority countries have been assiduous in their condemnation of China’s policy towards Uighurs. John Bolton’s recent book accused Donald Trump of telling President Xi that building camps for Uighurs in Xinjiang was ‘exactly the right thing to do’.[16] Under pressure from Congress, the US (along with the UK) has since started to take a harsher line, with Mike Pompeo announcing in early July new sanctions on senior Chinese government figures, including Chen Quanguo, party secretary of the Xinjiang Autonomous Region and a member of the politburo.[17]

Western democracies may have been careful in their response to China’s ‘sinicisation’ campaign, but their general tendency has been one of increasing opposition. But what is remarkable about MENA governments’ reactions is not simply their ignorance or tacit support, but the domestic risks of such a response. For theocratic governments of the region such as those of Saudi Arabia and Iran (or simply those with Islam as the official religion), a lack of intervention in China’s overtly anti-Muslim policies risks undermining their legitimacy. As Darren Byler, a researcher at the University of Colorado, has pointed out, ‘greeting someone in Arabic … or even naming one’s son Mohammed … can result in detention or prison sentences for Uighurs.’[18] According to some measures ‘Mohammed’, or variations on it, is the most popular male name both in the Arab world and worldwide.[19] The Saudi Crown Prince is called Mohammed. Where China has been destroying mosques, leaders of MENA countries have been building them. An article on the competition of state mosque building in the last edition of this magazine argued that, ‘Mosques now function as a tool for the ultimate expression of power and wealth in the region.’[20] To greater and lesser degrees, leaders in the region have invested their legitimacy and money in religion for many years. The long-term connection between Wahhabism and the House of Saud is an obvious example – it has run since 1744.[21] This year, President Erdogan decreed the conversion of Hagia Sophia into a mosque and last year, the largest mosque in Africa – with the world’s tallest minaret – was opened in Algeria, generally interpreted as a legacy project for the recently resigned President Abdelaziz Bouteflika.[22] The apparent contradiction between these governments’ domestic and international relationships with Islam has not caused substantial opposition in the region. Recently, there have been mid-scale protests in Jordan and Turkey in support of Uighurs, and twenty-seven Kuwaiti lawmakers have called on their government to intervene to stop China’s repression of the group.[23] It has even been suggested that the 2009 Green Movement in Iran was partly fuelled by a parallel protest led by reformist clerics such as Ayatollah Youssef Sanei over Iran’s silence on China’s treatment of Uighurs, including the response to riots in Urumqi in July 2009.[24] Yet these examples, as with the rest of the world, have generally been small-scale and anomalous.

As is common with diplomacy, the contradictory nature of MENA leaders’ treatment of Uighurs is partly driven by economics. Algeria’s new ‘Great Mosque of Algiers’ (see above) demonstrates this well; it was built by the state-backed China State Construction Engineering Corporation (CSCEC).[25]  The CSCEC has benefited from links to state-backed financing, with China lending African governments and their ‘state-owned enterprises’ $143 billion between 2000 and 2017.[26] The most famous element of this programme of Chinese infrastructure building is the Belt and Road Initative (BRI), launched in 2013. As of August 2019, China had signed BRI agreements with eighteen Arab countries. And by 2018, bilateral trade between China and Arab countries had reached $244.3 billion.[27] Thus, China provides both cheap and efficient infrastructure construction and substantial capital investment. Just as Western governments are having to consider the significant economic benefits of a close relationship with China, so too are those of the MENA region.

A desire to avoid international scrutiny of human rights abuses lies alongside economic considerations as a motivation for some MENA governments to ignore China’s treatment of the Uighurs. The July 2019 letter to the UN Human Rights Council did not just support China’s actions in Xinjiang, it also condemned the ‘naming and shaming and publicly exerting pressure on other countries’ over human rights violations.[28] And although regional leaders have invested power and money in religion, many remain wary of political Islam, as shown by President Sisi’s crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.[29] Many therefore have sympathy when China claims to be conducting an anti-extremism campaign in Xinjiang.[30]

As China’s influence on the world stage grows, and its repression of Uighurs continues, the balance between religious, and diplomatic and economic considerations will continue for MENA governments. As the US and Europe take a harsher line on China, ignorance of or implicit support for China’s ‘sinicisation’ campaign will become more apparent and controversial. As with the July 2019 letters, governments will be increasingly forced to explicitly support or condemn China. The balance between economics and concerns about human rights exposure, and pan-Islamic solidarity may be given closer scrutiny on the domestic stage. With Uighur activists now urging the International Criminal Court to open proceedings against China for attempting to deport members of the ethnic group from Cambodia and Tajikistan, this issue will not disappear.[31]

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